Calvin Bedient recently wrote an article, published on Poetry Daily‘s website, wherein he claims that Conceptualism preferences thought over feeling by valorizing non-expressive poetry that lacks political clout, leads to misery and depression, and is complicit in the subjugation of what he calls “the technologically proletarianized subject.” Bedient refers to the “value of affect” in defining what he means when he argues that conceptualism preferences thought over emotion, calling conceptualism, at best, indifferent or “emotionally neutral.”
What does “emotionally neutral” mean here? Can anyone calling themselves a poet possibly be emotionally neutral? The intentional abdication of classical modes of expression inherent to extreme forms of conceptualist work is a gesture meant to direct the reader’s attention to what has been negated: the traditionally voluntary and expressive articulation of the emotive aspects of the work itself. This gesture of resistance or negation, however, is inherently and paradoxically emotive. The frustration of the repressed, the invisible, the negated, causes itself to be flung to the forefront, to become un-ignorable. Works of conceptualism that intentionally neuter themselves perform an act that demonstrates that emotion cannot be divorced from poetry, or from art, despite artists’ explicit intent to do so. The repression of emotion cannot be neutral or indifferent. Such an act betrays a commitment to the effect, as well as the affect, of the work being produced, rather than a rejection or a subjugation of such aspects.
Bedient’s conception of conceptualism focuses on extreme and popular incarnations of the movement, in many of which the illusion of emotional indifference, or the outright suppression of emotive expression, is central to the work itself. Many of these works are non-lyric, and many are unreadable or asemic. But is that all conceptualism is? Is that all conceptualism can, and has, produced? Can conceptualism be reduced to its absolutist extremes, or does it have more tools to offer?
Bedient presumes that conceptualist poetry, because of its focus on ideas and optional abdication of intent or classical process to method, cannot elicit as emotional a response, or be as emotive, as poetry composed in other ways. According to Bedient, “writers who pride themselves on conceiving projects and executing them according to plan [are] thus relatively indifferent to the intrinsic value of what is produced and to the quality of the production itself.” How does a focus on conceptualist processes necessitate indifference to the value of the product? In some extreme cases, such as Goldsmith’s work, the artist admits that the product of his work isn’t the goal of the gesture of creation, but rather the idea behind the inevitable object. This gesture, however, is not indifferent to the quality and value of the material product, but rather it explicitly rejects the materialist obsession with the creation of a product in favour of a conceptual gesture a la performative and ephemeral artwork (situationism, dadaism, etc.), the goal of which is to emotionally affect the person who encounters the idea, not the consumer who buys a product in order to access an experience. The very negation of the materialist obsession with the ‘quality’ and ‘intrinsic value’ (which Bedient fails to adequately define or contextualize), is the means by which emotional affect is freed, and allowed to impact the viewer via the concept behind the conceptual work.
Bedient also mentions, but fails to adequately define, “organic developments within a constantly changing context”, which he criticises conceptualism for shoving aside or glossing over. I took this phrase as a reference to a kind of virtuous sense of spontaneity or randomness that non-conceptualists modes of composition offer which conceptualism does not, or perhaps cannot. The underlying assumption in this part of Bedient’s piece is that the procedure or concept of a conceptualist work robs its result of the boons of more classical methods of composition, such as random inspiration, a change of ideas, perhaps even a rejection of the initial concept of a book and the replacement of that framework for something else. The contradiction here is that, for many conceptual writers, the initial concept, framework, or process that drives the work often produces something that the writer could not have predicted, a text that has an element of randomness and spontaneity produced by the non-random process of its inception encountering the tenets of conventional language use (erasure, appropriation, the N+7 method, etc.).
The argument that conceptualism preferences the “conceiving head” over the “intuitive heart” (an overly simple binary distinction), misconstrues the possibilities offered by conceptualism’s toolkit, and the movement’s potential to provide new ways of evoking and of responding to oppressive forces. According to Bedient, conceptualism lacks “militancy” and the ability to be strongly political. Again, Bedient fails to define his terms. What is meant by “militancy” exactly? Is Bedient referring to extreme activism, or simply to a political bent or agenda expressed as a thread through a poet’s work? Bedient attempts to answer questions like: ‘is it impossible for conceptualism to be militant or political?’ and ‘does conceptualism discourage these things?’ My take on these questions is that conceptualism encourages neither conformity nor non-conformity, neither misery nor joy; the movement offers a vast toolkit of alternative modes of writing, akin to the structural toolkits of the past, such as the forms ‘sonnet’ or ‘villanelle’.
Because the sonnet, for example, is an age-old invention, and appears in several popular writing movements throughout history (which can be arguably tied to their respective sociopolitical moments, if desired), and the sonnet was valorized during those moments to some degree, is it useful or productive to scrutinize the sonnet form itself for not offering the right structural tools, or for not being revolutionary enough, or for somehow causing misery? A form offers nothing but itself. The writer must choose whether that for express what they feel compelled to express, or whether another form is better suited to their work or aesthetic preferences. Conceptualism may have a vague set of philosophical undertones necessary for some to constitute it a ‘movement’ or a ‘label’, but however you characterize conceptualism, it is, at its core, primarily and essentially, a set of tools. We should be ‘hating the player, not the game’ in this case, or rather, criticizing specific users of conceptual techniques whose work seems tepid or damaging to us, not the movement in and of itself. Bedient does do this, but he extends his criticism of specific people and works to the entire movement when that extension does not hold up. Different readers have different aesthetic affinities when it comes to art, such as poetry. The movements they find themselves in are not necessarily defined by their practices.
Bedient’s next criticism is that conceptualist poetry decries the narrative, the dramatic, and the lyric as somehow outmoded, useless, or exhausted. This is not the case. Conceptual works can be and are heavily narrative, dramatic, and lyric. Conceptualist works do not necessarily have to avoid or trump traditional modes of evoking emotion, despite certain examples of conceptual work that aims to do so (again, in order to enhance evocatively, rather than to smother it as Bedient suggests), and such examples do not represent the entire conceptualist canon or its plethora of compositional conceits. Even Bok’s work is heavily lyric, dramatic, and narrative all at once, despite its flirtations with science and mechanistic word-sorting. Just because a work can be called conceptualist, or even if its author chooses to announce it as such, does not mean that work is limited to conforming to only a small set of the myriad of conceptualist forms that the movement offers (i.e., forms of rote appropriation Goldsmith would call “uncreative”). Ironically, Bedient is himself berating conceptual poetry for being ‘too conceptual’, while simultaneously misconstruing the movement itself, interpreting only an extremely small percentage of works that can be, or call themselves, ‘conceptual’ as representative of the entire movement and all that write within it. Andre Alexis says it best:
Once one has been labelled, reviewers (and readers) almost inevitably comment on the label as much as they do on the work. To be a feminist writer, a magic realist, a surrealist, a member of the avant-garde … all these designations lead to the same thing: a prejudgement that clogs up important channels between writer and reader.”
Bedient’s notion that “Language poetry, conceptual writing, visual poetry, Flarf, critical poetics—are positioned toward the earlier avant-gardes as ego is to impulse, idea to sensation, cynicism to heroism, and no-time to animal faith and its nemesis, mortality” again both limits and misreads the potential of conceptualism based on specific incarnations rather than on the potential avenues the movement provides. Is there no sense of “self-regard” in Sina Queyras’s MxT? Is there no anger in Rachel Zolf’s Human Resources? Is there no grief in Jordan Abel’s Place of Scraps or the author’s Un/Inhabited? Is there no sense of creeping shame brought on by a legacy of collective, capitalist dehumanization in Sandy Pool’s Undark? Is there no sense of the sublime in Bok’s Crystallography? Is there no sense of humbling epoquietude in Bok’s The Xenotext, a book about the most basic and vital element of all animal and human bodies (and their concept-forming brains), DNA? Do these texts not make readers feel “shocked into existence”? Do we not shudder with indignation? Is emotion not evoked here?
Conceptualism is neither a movement which rejects or undermines the affect, nor a movement which focuses on it. Conceptualism is a toolkit, useful to some writers and useless to others. All of the works I mentioned above either claim to be conceptualist or can be critically categorized as such due to the methods or ideas behind their composition and content, but the reasons or justifications for the act of categorization are not as important as the ideas and content of the works being categorized.
Bedient’s piece preferences the label, and the act of labelling something as ‘conceptual’, missing the point that conceptualism is a set of tools. Conceptualism’s supposedly inherent “suppression of the psyche’s outspokenness” is easily debunked by an examination of the canon of conceptualism beyond its most superficial, popular, and extreme incarnations. Similarly, Bedient’s notion that “control is the issue. Emotion is volatile and unpredictable, whereas method is safe and reliable”, and that conceptualism necessarily offers one “an easy way out of the cruelty of writing” is bafflingly wrong. Anyone who chooses to abdicate their intent to a non-human or mathematized process goes through an emotionally tumultuous process in doing so, presumably with the goal of producing a work contingent upon being composed using such a process. The amount of passion and hours of work that many conceptualists devote to producing their work is a testament to the courage of utilizing such a tool, of devoting oneself to a possibility outside oneself, rather than to the safe, traditional, classical mode of expression that is far less cruel than constraint. But, like the best teachers, conceptual tools are sharp, and will sharpen the writing done with them if the author chooses to abdicate control to the constraint. The notion that anyone who refuses to participate in, or experiment with, conceptual constraints is inherently braver or more in control than someone who uses other compositional methods is fallacious and ludicrous. Anyone who has taken a moment to experiment with any conceptualist constraint immediately becomes aware that emotion cannot be suppressed or eliminated from their work even if the artist consciously intends to do so.
Bedient’s comments about Eunoia mark one of the few parts of the piece I agreed with. I agree that Eunoia is the shallowest of Christian’s works, since it is the most reliant upon its means of generation. It seems repetitive to me, and is best experienced as an audio recording read by the poet, rather than read, for its performative value. The exhaustiveness of the concept, in this case, produced almost no emotive reaction in me. But this only supports my point that not all conceptualist works lack emotion, not all are predicated upon some imaginary, ideal, and ultimately impossible negation of emotion by process or method. I dislike Eunoia due to my own aesthetic affinities, and I know many others who love the book. If your aesthetic affinities favour non-conceptual poetry, there is no need to lash out against conceptual poetry as if it is the pure antithesis of your own preferences and an enemy to be dethroned, or a hostile organism bent on absorbing or destroying you. Labels only narrow what we can experience, and lead to counter-productive blanket assumptions, as Alexis points out.
Bedient’s comments on the trivial nature of conceptualism, again, resort to cherry-picking certain authors and claiming that those authors or their works represent the totality or majority of conceptualism’s canon. Bedient audaciously claims that “But for the most part Oulipian poetics is dedicated to play…winning and fun.” Is M. Nourbese Phillips’s Zong, which Bedient uses as an example of a text “deliberately stupid with repetition”, about winning and fun? Is any author who cites a previous influence or produces a work heavily inspired by that author guilty of being a “grave robber,” a term Bedient later applies to conceptualists in order to criticise those who use appropriative poetics?
Bedient’s interpretation of the discarding of the typewriter seemed particularly desperate, a part of the piece meant apparently to frame the act as one that affirms the erroneous notion that conceptualism is inherently obsessed with “writing as death”. Can’t the discarding of a typewriter symbolize a turn toward the future of writing rather than an obsession with its past? If conceptualism supposedly rejects the notion of the ‘avant-garde’, as Bedient claims, then why does the toolkit provide such a vast arsenal of tools meant to encourage writing to continue to persist in more diverse forms than ever before? As for conceptualism’s use of technology, the movement simply provides tools for writers to use or misuse technology however they see fit. What Bedient seems to find difficult about conceptualism is that it had no politics, and that it allows artists the freedom to experiment with self-repression, self-constraint, and self-negation as a means of being emotive. Conceptualism is simply a toolkit. Recall the sonnet form metaphor from earlier. Conceptualism’s use depends entirely upon the intent of its user, much like the use of any technology.
Later in his piece, Bedient criticizes the anthology I’ll Drown My Book for being timid, implying that the book isn’t radical enough to qualify as feminist, or as politically effective. While I agree that some authors have undoubtedly began calling their work conceptual simply because they are “seeking to qualify before a membership board”, isn’t Bedient barring the writers who contributed to I’ll Drown My Book from entering the membership board of Bedient’s particular interpretation of what is ‘political’ or what is ‘feminist’? Isn’t Bedient’s conception of conceptualism just as narrow?
Cherry-picking the humorous, ironic, and absurdist projects of conceptualism fails to undermine its political, serious, and emotive works. The few, outspoken cynics and extremists of conceptual poetry do not speak for everyone whose work might fall into that movement. Criticizing an entire movement based on a sliver of the works it has produced that have simply received more public attention is disingenuous, and betrays at best a poor familiarity with the movement, and at worst a defensive impulse to criticise that which one dislikes for reasons of aesthetic preference.